The way Karen Brown remembers it, she was in elementary school when she first began to dream about going to college.But her chances always seemed rather slim. None of her five older brothers and sisters had been able to go. And, as the daughter of a retired construction worker, she doubted that there would be enough money to make a college education possible.
This week, when 18-year-old Karen Brown attended her first lecture at American University, she became the first in her family to go to college. Beyond even that achievement, Brown fulfilled a dream which for her brothers and sisters had been deferred.
A tall, slim woman who aspires to become a television anchorwoman, Brown is a 1980 graduate of Roosevelt High School where she was an A student. In her senior year, she won American University's Frederick Douglass Scholarship, which covers tuition and fees and is renewable each year.
"I've always been interested in bettering myself," Brown says. "I've always wanted to go to college for that reason. I wanted to make my parents proud, too. None of my older brothers and sisters made it to college. Since I had the chance to be the first, I didn't want to mess up."
Brown graduated fourth in a senior class of more than 400. Her teachers, as well as her family, she said inspired her to continue her education. "I will succeed in school, I'm positive," she added.
An ambitious young woman, Brown will bring to her university life more experience in the working world than many students her age.
During the past three years, she has worked as a secretary for the Veterans Administration and the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare. She has also worked as a counselor at a planned parenthood center.
If Brown pursues a television career, her effervescent personality should be of help. Brown, whose voice is soft yet distinctive and whose bright smile expresses a tasteful self-confidence, laughingly admits that she loves to "talk, talk and talk."
Brown fuels her conversations and wide-ranging interests by reading mystery novels and news magazines. Most of her friends are older by a few years and already in college.
The new AU freshman comes from a proud family which, throughout her life, has had an abundance of love to share but a scant of supply of money. h
Twenty-five years ago, the Browns lived in a one-room apartment on 4th Street NW and could barely afford to feed and clothe their children. Today, they live in a three-bedroom house they have rented at 729 Upshur St. NW for the past 20 years.
Brown's father was a laborer for a construction company for more than 30 years and her mother worked as a bartender in a Potomac, Md., restaurant for many years. Both are retired and living on small pensions.
"My first five children were born so close together, we couldn't afford to send them to college," Mrs. Brown said.
The first of seven Brown children was Sadie, now Sadie Fields, 36 and married. She was followed by two brothers and two sisters, all in their 30s now. Their parents say they waited to have Karen and her younger sister until they could afford to do so.
"When they finished high school, they had to take care of themselves," Mrs. Brown said of the older children. "They had to work. The future was dim for us, but work was easier to find back then. We didn't know about all the grants available to young people."
Brown's older brothers and sisters all of whom graduated from high school, found a variety of detours on the road to higher education.
"I wanted to go to college, but I was the oldest and I knew my parents could not afford it," Sadie Fields said. "I just decided to go to work." She now works as a personel officer for the CIA but says, "I would definitely get my degree if I had to do it all over again. I would have tried to work my way through school."
Pat Washington, Brown's 32-year-old sister, said, "Up until 16 or 17, I wanted to go to college. But I had a child at 16 and I stopped thinking about it then. I had my second child at 20. Then I got married. I know my parents couldn't send me to college but I would've been willing to work my way through." She has worked as a secretary at the Washington Hospital Center for 12 years.
After high school, Brown's brothers began working in entry-level positions in the field of law enforcement. For security reasons, they asked that their first names not appear. Both wanted to attend college, they said, but due to "poor study skills and weak motivation," they did not pursue that goal.
"We all feel that if we could start all over again, we sure would've gotten the college education," Sadie Fields said. "But since we can't, we encouraged and pushed Karen to work hard and apply for scholarships. She always wanted to go to college. So she just pitched in and did it."
Brown's sister Beatrice, now Beatrice Garner, 30, said I'm proud that she's going to college. It's somthing I couldn't accomplish. I always told her 'Don't be like me, be better than me. Whatever you choose to be, be the best.
The neighbors who have watched Brown grow up in their Petworth community believe that she will do as well in college as she did in high school.
I just think she'll be the most," said Sarah White, a woman in her late 60s, who has watched Brown grow from childhood. "She's different because she doesn't seem to hang with the bunch. She keeps her face in those books most of the time."
Harold Jackson, 66, is another neighbor who has known Brown for a long time and recently gave her some school supplies.
"She comes from a close-knit family," he said. "And she's A-number-one as an individual and as a student also. Quite a few youngsters around here are not interested in education, just running the streets all night. She's different."
Though Brown values education, she tdoesn't think it's a magic wand. "I know some have not succeeded after going to college, but most I know have," she said.
"There just wasn't such a demand for college students when my older brothers and sisters graduated from high school, but there is now. And a degree does help compete in the job market.
"If I weren't going to college Brown said, "I probably would try to work my way up from the bottom like my brothers and sisters did. But I'm glad I'm going to college. I'm going to make sure my younger sister (Darlene) gets the chance to go, too."